Benjamin, like Marx, took flight into the misty realm of religion imagining that the modern world was a kind of Hell. By investigating obsolete pieces of historical detritus such as the Kaiserpanorama or the Parisian arcades, Benjamin found not just hopes and dreams but the dashing of those hopes and dreams. He invited us to realize that the consumer goods, gizmos and technological innovations that bewitch us today will become passé, leaving us trapped in the
Sisyphean quest of acquiring something else new degraded longings. Such was the hellish fate of capitalism's victims.
He urged us also to realise that past collective hopes were dashed and through their contemplation, invited us to realise that the ones we hold now will similarly be unfulfilled in the future. Max Pensky wrote of what Benjamin sought to achieve: ‘The fantasy world of material well-being promised by every commodity now is revealed as a Hell of unfulfilment; the promise of eternal newness and unlimited progress encoded in the imperatives of technological change and the cycles of consumption now appear as their opposite, as primal history, the mythic compulsion toward endless repetition.’
The device by which Benjamin sought to awaken us from our dreams in The Arcades Project was what he called the dialectical image. This was a key notion in his developing philosophy during the 19305. In the following passage, he tried (and for many readers, failed) to explain successfully what a dialectical image is:
"It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on the past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent. Only dialectical images are genuine images ( that is, not archaic); and the place where one encounters them is language‘
This esoteric notion has baffled Benjamin scholors. Pensky for instance, wryly wrote that the ‘ “lightning flash ofthe dialectical image has to this day, remained far more a dark star, indeed a kind of theoretical and methodological black hole, a singularity following its own extraordinary laws and capable, apparently of absorbing any number of attempts at critical illumination.
Even the term 'Dialectical image' sounds like an oxymoron; dialectical usually describes the relationship of concepts or arguments to each other; images by contrast are normally singular and immediate. It is tempting to despair of understanding Benjamin.
For Benjamin, it was the aborted attempts and abject failures erased from the narratives of progress that drew his critic’s attention and by means of Which he represented hell. Blasting such historical objects out of their usual context (i.e. becoming part of the triumphalist
narrative of progress or being disappeared from it) was to be a kind of Marxist shock therapy aimed at reforming consciousness. In 1843, Marx described the reform of consciousness as consisting in ‘making the world aware of its own consciousness, in awakening it out of its dream about itself, in explaining to it the meaning of its own actions’. Benjamin’s notion of the dialectical object was Marxist in that sense: it involved ripping objects from their context, reconfiguring them with others from different times and setting them in a different context or what he called a constellation. The idea then was that each would illuminate the other and expose the lie-dream of capitalism in a sudden, shocking image.
This elusive thing, the dialectical image, then, is not so much an image that can be seen , but something that can only be represented in language and yet connects the past and present in dialectical relationship.
Benjamin wrote: The new dialectical method of doing history presents itself as the art of experiencing the present as waking world a world to which that dream which we name the past refers in truth".
For this method the present is haunted by the ruins of the past, by the very detritus capitalism sought to airbrush from its history. It was this method however esoteric that was to possess the philosophy of Theodor Adorno in the 30's and become an important sideline of
critical theory, if not a cul-de-sac. Benjamin scarcely wrote in Freudian terms of the return of the repressed, but that IS what his project Sets in motion. In this sense, Benjamin sought to be a redeemer, freeing Capitalism’s Victims from hell. And the dialectical image was supposed to help in that liberation. But the reception has been mixed; Pensky worried that perhaps nobody other than Benjamin can find or make dialectical images. Other critics wondered if there is such a thing at all.28 Most likely, the term dialectical image obscures the simpler truth Benjamin was trying to convey. Under capitalism, he thought, we fetishise consumer goods imagining that they can fulfil our hopes for happiness and realise our dreams. By considering old fetishes for now obsolete products or innovations, we might liberate ourselves from our current fetishes and so from our delusive belief that capitalism can provide us with fulfilment or happiness. By meditating on past disappointments, we might free ourselves from future disappointment. that liberation would have involved the reform of consciousness that Marx sought. But Benjamin, in part because his writings in the 19305 got sucked into a terminological black hole, never succeeded in it. This exemplifies a more general truth: Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt School never freed capitalism’s victims from hell, but rather became increasingly caustic and elegant critics of it.